When in doubt about who to honor as a show business “giant,” start with the mononyms. She’s no longer “Reba McEntire,” she’s just “Reba” – and, thus, the perfect candidate to be first to have her gargantuanness celebrated in CMT Giants, a new series of specials from the premier country cable network. Last night at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, Reba’s professional largeness and personal largess were the subject of tributes by Kelly Clarkson, Faith Hill, Dolly Parton, Martina McBride, LeAnn Rimes, Megan Mullally, Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, and Wynonna (now a mononym, herself, and no longer a “Judd” – say, could she be the next honoree?). Lotsa huge, melodramatic ballads; no boys allowed, country boys or otherwise; accents up the wazoo… yes, it was VH1 Divas gone Okie. (Which may, in fact, be the only way to go.)
The show won’t air till Nov. 18, but here’s some of what you have to look forward to. For sheer, wonderful kitsch, you can’t beat the climactic “Does He Love You,” a duet between a wronged wife and a mistress. McBride played the former role, and Clarkson – the little hussy – assumed the latter; they sang from opposite ends of the stage until the finale, when, in a stareoff, these two adversaries strode purposefully toward each other; for a few seconds it was like some big catfight moment from “Dallas” being remade as a movie musical. Martina also sang the part of the cheated-upon wife in a solo number, “Whoever’s in New England.” (Maybe she was silently dedicating her entire part of the evening to Sara Evans, practically the only major female country star who wasn’t on hand?)
Reba has never been much of a traditionalist; for better or worse (or, to my mind, both), she introduced a more theatrical style of performing when she made the scene 30 years ago. So any tribute would be hard-pressed to come up with “down-home” moments, but there were a couple – Will & Grace’s Mullally warbling “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun,” from Annie Get Your Gun, the source of Reba’s 2001 triumph on Broadway; and Dolly doing “How Blue,” the one number of the evening that sounded really, really country. The evening’s one seemingly spontaneous moment came when Dolly demanded Reba get on stage to add a harmony vocal – issuing commands to the honoree of “get off your butt” and, when they were done, “sit your ass down.” (Come to think of it, Dolly will surely be the next “giant,” or else we suspect some CMT exec’s rear end is going to be grass.)
“I’ll probably never sing these songs again after hearing these girls sing ‘em,” said Reba at evening’s end, charmingly… and unconvincingly. Because, best performance of the night? No question, it was Reba’s own show-closing barnburner, “Fancy,” the most inspirational song ever written about a mother urging her daughter into money-grubbing whoredom. It would be unseemly to compare the uptown ambitions of that song’s title character with the singer’s own careerism, but if there’s anything Reba herself radiates, it’s a weird yet workable combination of simple, disarmingly folksy charm and fiercely intelligent, businesslike determination. Anyway, at 51, girl still knows how to work it in heels and a red dress. She is, for lack of an even cheesier word, Reba-riffic.